ST. PAUL — After months of political bickering in the nation's only divided Legislature, Minnesota state lawmakers reconvened this week only to be interrupted Wednesday, Jan. 6, by an attack on the U.S. Capitol, an event that shook the nation.
The Minnesota Legislature returned (in a largely virtual sense) for the 2021 legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 5, with questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, a two-year state budget and other pressing concerns in the state before them.
And then on Wednesday, a mob of rioters inspired by President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, breaking into the building forcing lockdowns and evacuations. Five fatalities have been reported in connection with the violent riot.
In Minnesota, Republicans condemned the violence but split on their support for the legitimacy of the election. Congress late Wednesday approved the results of the Electoral College vote, affirming President-elect Joe Biden's victory over Trump.
The events spurred calls for unity from local GOP lawmakers and demands from Democrats that Minnesota Republicans who sowed doubt about the results of the election step down. It wasn't immediately clear whether the Republican Party would continue to align itself with the president or chart a new path.
“Yesterday what I saw in Washington D.C., I condemned as un-American,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, told senators on Thursday. “If we’re going to be united, it's not Republicans united by themselves, it’s not Democrats united by themselves, it’s Americans uniting against all acts of violence and destroying property and disrespecting people, I don’t care who it is.”
Democrats in the Legislature called for stronger statements from GOP leaders condemning Trump, and DFL Party leaders urged Congress to expel from office lawmakers who'd called the rejection of the results of the Electoral College results.
“I want to believe in unity, but we need to see some action. We can no longer just accept words,” Sen. Omar Fateh, D-Minneapolis, said as he called on his colleagues to publicly condemn Trump and affirm their support for a peaceful transition of power.
At the same time, Republicans in the Minnesota House of Representatives voiced frustration about their DFL colleagues noting in the House journal their support for a Texas lawsuit challenging the results of that state's election.
Amid the ongoing divisions, lawmakers started the work of the legislative session this week and will keep at it at least through May. Here's a look at what went down this week at the Minnesota Capitol and what might lie ahead.
Walz sets guidelines for ending emergency powers
Republican lawmakers this week were quick to say they'd push for an end to the state's peacetime emergency to fight COVID-19. Now that the Legislature is back in session, lawmakers should have a stronger voice in deciding the next steps to combat the pandemic, they said.
On the first day back, House Republicans tried to call an end to the emergency and Walz's expanded powers but were blocked by a procedural issue. Now that lawmakers are in session, they'll have more control over how the state uses federal funds to address the pandemic and could roll out policies aimed at mitigating the illness' spread and guiding response and recovery efforts.
And Tim Walz on Thursday sent legislative leaders an outline of policies he'd ask them to approve before he'd let the peacetime emergency lapse. Among them were plans to set in statute protections for workers and consumers in place under his executive orders and require in law that people wear face coverings in public indoor spaces, as mandated under an order he issued this summer.
Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle had asked for clearer guidelines of what the governor expected of them before he'd relinquish his emergency powers. Based on early conversations in the Legislature, it appeared unlikely that lawmakers would be willing to accept Walz's requirements.
Mask mandate falls short in Senate
The Minnesota Senate on Thursday voted down a proposal to make facemask usage mandatory for senators and staff in Senate buildings and, instead, strongly encouraged members to don the coverings while at the Capitol complex.
Sen. Melissa Wiklund, D-Bloomington, brought the proposal, which would require facemasks at the Capitol complex unless a senator was alone in his or her office. And she said the rule should be toughened to ensure senators and staff take it seriously. House lawmakers adopted a similar rule this week.
"This is a way to ensure consistency in our chamber activities and for everyone to know that this is an expectation for all when they're working in the Capitol complex," Wiklund said. "By doing so, we show to our members, our colleagues, our staff that we all care and have mutual respect for the role that each of us plays in the Senate."
Days earlier, eight unmasked senators walked through the Senate chamber to turn in their election certificates and to take the oath of office. Senate leaders ahead of the 2021 session had toughened the chamber's policies to strongly encourage members to wear face coverings.
In November, a handful of GOP senators including Gazelka tested positive for COVID-19 after attending post-election events where lawmakers and others went without masks. One former senator, Jerry Relph of St. Cloud, died after contracting the disease.
Gazelka amended Wiklund's proposal to strongly encourage facemasks in Senate buildings. He said mandating the coverings might encourage pushback.
"I'm encouraging people to wear the mask, I wear a mask. On this floor right now, everybody has a mask on, but I don't think we should be mandating it. It, in and of itself, some of us senators said, is causing the division, so I encourage everybody to wear the mask but let's move forward," Gazelka said.
Democrats in the chamber argued that the public health risk of COVID-19 was too dire to not require masking in the Capitol, but they were ultimately defeated as Republicans and the chamber's two Independents voted to suggest not require masks. Wiklund ultimately withdrew her amendment and DFL senators said they'd pursue ethics violation complaints against senators who failed to wear masks in public spaces at the Capitol.
Forum News Service hosts conversation with leaders Monday
Minnesota's governor and the four legislative leaders are set to meet the media Monday, Jan 11, to talk about their top policy priorities, the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic and how lawmakers will set about approving a two-year budget.
Forum News Service is set to host its annual legislative session briefing virtually at 10 a.m. via Zoom. Reporters from around the state have been invited to ask questions less than a week into the 2021 legislative session.
Gov. Tim Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt and Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent will field questions from the Capitol Press Corps and other journalists.
The event will be moderated by Dana Ferguson, Forum News Service's Minnesota government correspondent. And it will give reporters from outside the Twin Cities metro area the same chance to ask questions of the leaders as the Capitol Press Corps.
Those interested in watching the discussion can follow a livestream on Forum Communications websites or with captions via Minnesota Senate Media Services.
Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email firstname.lastname@example.org